LeBron’s déjà vu
BOSTON – LeBron James wouldn’t let his teammates see him sulk, let them see him shrouded in shame. The Cleveland Cavaliers were getting run out of the Garden again, James’ shooting touch reduced to rubble, and still he spent the final moments of Game 2 marching down the visiting bench and demanding that the Cavs undo those draped towels and furrowed brows and stand with him.
“Me being the leader, I can’t look like I’m down on the series, or down on my play,” James said.
Another playoff game, another Boston strangle on LeBron James. In his mind, James must be fighting that sinking feeling that this series is so frighteningly familiar to the trajectory of how his season ended a year ago, how it all unraveled to the champion San Antonio Spurs.
When this 89-73 loss was over Thursday night, when defenders Paul Pierce and James Posey were done chasing him, the traps, the crowding, the endless tangle of long arms rushing, rotating, relentlessly shrinking the court again in Game 2, this was the question you couldn’t help but ask him: Are these Celtics flashing the defensive ferocity and fundamental assault of those Spurs?
“I think it is,” James confirmed. “They’re very, very aggressive. They’re very good.”
Yes, these are the Spurs, all over again. Only this time, James believed he had developed a jump shot to counter the commitment to keep him out of the lane. Only this time, the most involved trade in NBA history supposedly had delivered him the shooters and inside muscle to ease his burden.
Only this time, nothing has changed.
James missed 18 of 24 shots, spiraling to an unspeakable 8-for-42 in the series. Seventeen turnovers in the two losses, too. The Boston Celtics are holding teams to 75.6 points per game at the Garden in these playoffs, 35 percent shooting. In Boston, the defense is downright Belichickian.
For now, Posey has turned into James’ Bruce Bowen, and Kevin Garnett protects the basket the way Tim Duncan did. The Spurs and Celtics share a strength of serious-minded veterans who never let down defensively, who adhere with discipline and dedication to schemes.
“They have athletic big (men), who do a good job rotating along the back side and not allowing me to crack the second line of defense,” James said. “I’m able to get past the first line, but I’m meeting another big at the rim.”
The statistics are a staggering testament to the Celtics’ NBA-best defense, yes, but also an alarming attack on James’ – and his coach’s – inability to counter the congestion the Celtics create.
When James has been able to get moving toward the rim on the Cavs’ standard-issue pick and roll, he’s being met by those long reaches of Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe. They are dutifully rushing to his side of the floor, forcing him to the baseline, forcing him to fade instead of coming strong. So many times, James is left to leave his feet, force a pass, a shot. He’s lost the angles in the series, his edge. After Game 1, Boston eliminated that bullet pass LeBron loves to make in traffic, clogging his sight lines with active hands and fleet feet.
“Our defensive principle that we have to stick by is (to) not let him get into the paint, by any means necessary,” Powe said.
“Just making sure he can’t turn the corner,” Perkins said.
There is starting to be criticism cropping up on the Cavaliers’ response to the Celtics’ defense, just as it did a season ago in the Finals. Bottom line: Why does Mike Brown’s coaching playbook seem so limited?
Over and over, the Cavaliers were running pick and rolls from the same starting points, only to watch the Celtics stifle them in the same way. A disciple of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Brown is a solid defensive coach and a clear-minded, sure leader of men, but too often his offenses sputter and becomes painfully predictable. Now and again, James has been known to get flustered, break away and do his own thing.
Across these two games, James has made just one shot outside of the paint. In Game 2, he had many more good looks at the rim but just couldn’t make shots. He isn’t alone. The Cavaliers made that immense deadline trade to bring him shooters Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak along with Joe Smith and Ben Wallace. West and Szczerbiak missed 11 of 16 shots, Wallace played 3½ minutes before leaving with dizziness and Smith was invisible.
Now the Cavaliers are holding onto the hope that the Atlanta Hawks showed the Celtics still are susceptible on the road. The Celtics dropped three games in the opening round, the defense never traveling with them. The Cavs were down 2-0 to the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals a year ago, fought back and made it to the NBA Finals. General Manager Danny Ferry made that monumental trade, shuffled James’ supporting cast, but the formula remains unchanged: All on him, all the time.
With the series on the way back to Cleveland, with the Cavaliers desperate for a last stand, James is right: He can’t look down about this series, or about his play. Then what chance would they have?
“They are solid all the way around with great shooters but LeBron is what makes them go, and if we can somehow control him, then we can control their team,” Pierce said.
So far, this series has been the worst of LeBron James, the worst of the San Antonio Spurs’ Finals sweep all over again. For him, it suddenly is so frighteningly familiar.